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Central Asia: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan Still Clinging To Exit-Visa Regimes

The right to freedom of movement is defined in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. Article 13 states that everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state, and that everyone has the right to leave any country freely, including his own, and to return to his country. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have endorsed this declaration as members of various international organizations, yet both governments still use Soviet-style "propiski" (residency permits) and exit-visa systems to restrict their citizens' freedom of movement within and outside their countries.

Prague, 5 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are the only countries in the 55-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) where widespread restrictions on foreign travel still exist. They are also the sole remaining former Soviet republics to adhere entirely to the old system.

Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan were the first Central Asian countries to eliminate the exit-visa system, in 1999 and 2001, respectively. Turkmenistan, known as the most authoritarian state in the region, abolished the exit-visa system as of 1 January 2002.

OSCE representatives say they see these developments as the fruit of years of talks with governments in the region.

Vladimir Shkolnikov is a migration and freedom-of-movement adviser in the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or ODIHR. In an interview with RFE/RL, he explained the OSCE's view of the exit-visa regimes in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. "As with a number of countries that used to have this system, we remind [Uzbekistan and Tajikistan] that the exit-visa provisions are not in line with OSCE commitments that these countries took when they became members of the OSCE. There is the right to leave one's country and the right to return to it [freely]," Shkolnikov said.

But Shkolnikov admitted the OSCE's commitments are not legally binding. He said the only tactic the OSCE can take is to maintain a dialogue with the Uzbek and Tajik governments on the issue.

So far, ongoing talks with the Tajik and Uzbek governments have been disappointing. Instead of moving toward abolishing its exit-visa system, the Uzbek government has strengthened it. Starting on 1 September, a full-page exit-visa sticker will replace the current small stamps, and a new, centralized system of processing applications will be introduced.

According to the 1995 visa law of the Cabinet of Ministers of Uzbekistan, an Uzbek citizen wishing to travel abroad must apply for an exit visa at a special department in the Interior Ministry. Among the documents required for this visa are a letter signed by an employer or the local authorities, a comprehensive family history, and the applicant's work record from the last 10 years.

The law says applications are considered within two weeks and that the visa can be rejected based on a person's criminal record.

Human-rights activists and independent observers believe the main point of such a system is to control the movement of political dissidents and government opponents within these countries.

Otanazar Oripov is the chairman of the Uzbek human-rights group Mazlum, a new organization that is focusing on cases of political repression. He said a so-called "blacklist" exists that contains the names of all Uzbek opposition members and citizens with histories of dissent. He said the movements of people on this list are strictly controlled by law-enforcement officials. "First of all, this system that permits or prohibits citizens from leaving the country aims to keep them under strict control. But in many cases, this control point is turned into a big source of illegal income, a new chance for corruption to flourish even further. There are very few people who can get an exit visa just by paying an official fee. Most citizens have to pay bribes to get the visa or to speed up the checking procedure," Oripov said.

Oripov said applicants may pay $50 to $75 in bribes to receive an exit visa. If the visa is required within a day or two, the price increases from $100 to $300.

Officially, the exit-visa system is controlled by the Uzbek Interior Ministry. An Interior Ministry official who wished to remain anonymous told RFE/RL that every sovereign country has the right to define its domestic policy and that it is not the business of international organizations to question it.

Many observers, including Oripov, believe it is not the Interior Ministry but the Uzbek National Security Service (SNB), a successor to the KGB, that has the real power to control citizens' movement. "While taking your passport and all other required documents, an official of OVIR [the Entry, Exit, and Registration of Citizens Department in the Uzbek Interior Ministry] says that all data about you will be sent to the information center. This center is within the Interior Ministry. But OVIR officials themselves very often admit to opposition members that they are not allowed to put on an exit-visa stamp. That's why many believe that the control center is in the security service," Oripov said.

In neighboring Tajikistan, controls are politically and bureaucratically less restrictive than in Uzbekistan. In the case of a foreign business trip, an applicant is required to present a letter of invitation to the Foreign Ministry and a letter from his or her employer. For private trips, these documents must be given to the Interior Ministry. Officially, the process is supposed to take up to 20 days. In reality, it may take a month or longer.

RFE/RL spoke with a Tajik citizen who had recently obtained an exit visa. "If you use your acquaintances, then you may get an exit-visa stamp within two or three days. According to the law, you pay the equivalent of $10 in official fees. But if you, let's say, bribe your acquaintance, you may get this stamp within one or two hours. I personally did everything through my acquaintances and got my exit visa within a day for a $20 bribe."

OSCE representative Shkolnikov said many politicians and top security officials in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are well aware of the abuses of the exit-visa regimes. He said he is cautiously optimistic the region may one day become free of exit-visa requirements. He said Tajikistan shows the most promise. "We have also been led to believe that in Tajikistan, it's only a matter of time [before the] relevant provisions to abolish this requirement have been drafted and [are] waiting for relevant signatures. Uzbekistan? We have not had this kind of information," Shkolnikov said.

Shkolnikov added that ODHIR and OSCE member states will be discussing this issue further at upcoming meetings, including at an OSCE human-rights meeting in September in Warsaw.